WBS: Women of Substance Get a Befitting Platform

Kochi: It was a sparkling evening dedicated to women, of different ages and calling, unlike any other event hosted by the Queen of Arabian Sea, at least in a couple of decades. An underlying common thread of business acumen and innovative spirit linked them all, helping spread bonhomie, which was again fostered by their shared knowledge of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. The event was Destination Kerala Women Business Summit (WBS) 2018, a unique platform to facilitate intra-business dialogues, brainstorming and, of course, to honour those who stand out in the field with their stellar accomplishments.

WBS, an initiative by Destination Kerala for engaging with the women entrepreneurs and business leaders, is a first-of-its-kind in Kerala

Held in association with knowledge partner TiE Kerala and community partners WEN (Women Entrepreneurs Network) Kerala Chapter and ALL (All Ladies League) Kerala Chapter, WBS witnessed power-packed sessions which deliberated on women leadership and entrepreneurship.

The maiden edition of WBS was formally inaugurated by Elias George IAS (Retd.), Chairman, Infrastructure, Government and Healthcare Practice, KPMG in the presence of Dr. M Beena IAS, MD, Kerala State Industrial Development Corporation (KSIDC) and M S A Kumar, President, TiE Kerala.

Terming it a landmark event in Kerala’s business spectrum, the speakers acknowledged the hard work and efforts which went into building the women-friendly business ecosystem in the State. Awed by the sheer strength of the gathering, Dr. Beena, who delivered the presidential address, said, “Today, India is the sixth richest nation in the world. It is to be noted that the country has achieved this feat with just 25 per cent of our women population participating in the economic development. Imagine the impact if 50 per cent of the women population take part in the process. We would reach much greater heights if another 25 per cent could be mobilised.”

Meanwhile, Elias George noted that the number of working women in the urban areas has come down in India. He echoed the concerns of the women in the business fraternity who are alarmed by the increasing violence against women in general that often discourages them from taking up leadership roles. “Providing access to legal systems and ensuring women’s safety are the only ways to address it,” Elias said.

The former bureaucrat urged women to embrace the emerging technologies and opportunities which come out of it. “You should prepare yourself as not just women but people who can foretell the future.” He noted that value addition in Kerala should come from intellectual, social, cultural, health and tourism sectors.

M S A Kumar said the representation of women in boardrooms needs to improve for the better. At present, India ranks 26th globally in terms of presence of women in boardrooms and according to Indian law and guidelines laid down by Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), it is mandatory for all listed companies to have at least one woman board member – holding executive or non-executive position. “While some countries in Middle-East and Europe have as much as 40 per cent women representation in companies, it is still approximately 7 to 8 per cent in India. This should change,” Kumar suggested.

Rajesh Nair, Chairman, WBS 2018; TiE Kerala Charter Member and Associate Partner – Markets, EY; Sheela Kochouseph, Chairperson, WEN Kerala Chapter and Nirmala Lilly, Chairperson, ALL Kerala Chapter also spoke.
Veteran entrepreneur Pamela Anna Mathew, MD, OEN India was presented with Destination Kerala Women Business Summit 2018’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Sheela Kochouseph, MD, V-Star Creations was presented with the Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Shafeena Yusuff Ali, CEO, Tablez Food Company; Chairperson, Tablez India and Director, Twenty14 Holdings, was chosen for the NRK Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Business Leader of the Year Award was presented to Shalini Warrier, Chief Operating Officer, The Federal Bank Limited. Nazneen Jehangir, Executive Director, NeST Group received Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Elias George and Dr. Beena honoured the award winners during the ceremony.

Panel discussions got underway with the ice-breaker session titled ‘Changing Perspectives on Women Leadership and Empowerment’. This was followed by the sessions ‘On the Driver’s Seat’, ‘Better Halves in the Boardroom’ and ‘Funding Women-led Businesses’. The ‘Fireside Chat’ involving Crowdfunding expert Satish Kataria and Rajesh Nair brought curtains down on the day’s business.
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GENDER BIASES VANISH BEFORE THEIR DETERMINATION

Prasanth Nair IAS, popularly known as ‘Collector Bro’, stirred up thoughts in the Women Business Summit 2018 saying women in India need to break the shackles of patriarchy at the early stages of their lives so as to be successful on par with men. In the ice breaker session on ‘Changing Perspectives on Women Leadership and Empowerment’, he observed how subtle and often indirect forms of gender biases get ingrained in the minds of male half of society very early in life. The session was moderated by Vivek Krishna Govind, Immediate Past President, Kerala Management Association and Senior Partner, Varma and Varma Chartered Accountants.

“Gender biases begin to take roots at a very young age. The surroundings and environment in which an individual is being brought up play a major role in it. Women find it out only very late in life that they can break the shackles,” said Prasanth Nair, who is currently Deputy Secretary to Government of India.

Zara Sheikha, Senior HR Associate, UST Global and Board Member, Queerala shared her views on what it takes to become a leader. She, being one of the first transwomen who got into the corporate world and one who has endured countless difficulties in becoming what she is, recalled how life gave her opportunities to battle the odds, only to emerge stronger and determined every time.

“Women, being a leader, mother and entrepreneur, need to have dreams. Dreams should be there in life to be realised. Nobody can stop strong women and our success stories only reinforce that belief,” said Zara.

Speaking about women in film industry, Parvathy Nair, cine artist, encouraged women to come forward to do tasks which are predominantly done by men. Expressing her strong faith in the will power of women, she said: “If people like Anjali Menon, film director, can do it, more women can do it. I am sure that women in the industry will soon be appreciated as much as men for their work and they are going to get paid more than men.

Prasanth Nair said civil service is a great leveler when it comes to gender. “It is a leveler wherein women are to be treated equally. On many occasions, women have outnumbered men in civil service exams and also they are not intimidated by challenging career options like IPS,” he said.

Asked about how women are opting out of film careers after marriage, Parvathy said that marriages are not really a barrier. According to her, working women in the industry who have the courage and talent will continue to work.

TO BE AT THE HELM, THEY SILENTLY BROKE GENDER STEREOTYPES

Every woman who was present at the Women Business Summit 2018 had one thing in common, a story about how they managed to overcome the hurdles in life to become successful individuals. Brimming with confidence, they proudly shared their stories and experiences with the audience.

Panel discussion – ‘On the Driver’s Seat’, moderated by actor and academic Suja Karthika opened with keynote address by Shafeena Yusuff Ali, Founder and Chairperson, Tablez – The Food Company. She recalled her journey from being a young mother to an entrepreneur. “With all the grit and naivety of a 23-year-old, I found myself on the driver’s seat with the blessings of a few and scrutiny of many. I wanted to start my own business and there were so many reasons for it. But there were many who cited reasons why I should not. Even today my effort is to live up to the opportunity life has given me.”

The panel was opened by Dr. Santy Sajan, CEO, Aster MIMS, emphasizing the role of women entrepreneurs in breaking stereotype. “I think confidence, courage, vision and willingness are qualities one must possess to break stereotypes. Being a nurse, people had thought that it might not be possible for me to get to this position. Lot of stereotypes had to be broken to get here,” she said candidly.

Suman Suresh, Managing Director, Krishnan Nair and Sons, spoke about how she followed her father’s footsteps into the world of business. “My father had never asked me to sit at home just because I am a girl,” she said. Suman, added that it was her decision to take up the reins of the family business.

Jeemol Koruth Verghese, Director, Eva’s Healthy Bakes, who started off as a home baker, pointed out that she decided to scale up her business after receiving good response from customers. “I am happy and proud that I am being called a healthy baker. The challenge for me was to educate my customers which was as important as selling the product.”

Diwia Thomas, founder of Papertrail, is known for her out-of-the-box creativity in bringing out her flagship products. But beyond that, she has been garnering love and respect from women who belong to different strata of society. “We empower women who can’t leave home. Most of them hail from battered or abusive backgrounds. By the grace of God, we have been able to empower them and put their life back on track, salvaging them from the clutches of depression or the verge of suicide.”

FIRST AMONG EQUALS IN BOARDROOMS

The norm, ‘father is the head of the family’, could soon become a thing of the past. Women have now proved their ability in taking managerial decisions, both on the domestic and work fronts, just like their spouses have. Women have shown the world that they can be a ‘better half’ in the professional space as well, multi-tasking various roles.
“Women, who need to juggle their professional and personal roles, may often have to convert their office space into a children’s study space,” says Latha Parameswaran, Director of Kottaram Group. She was delivering the keynote address in the session titled ‘Better Halves in the Boardroom’ at WBS 2018.

“Agreeing to disagree, respecting one’s spouse, always wearing one’s learning hat to be abreast of latest innovations, defining roles and responsibilities, sticking to ethical plans and doing one’s best are some healthy tips to be successful in profession,” she said.

The session, moderated by Anisha Cherian, Charter Member, TiE Kerala and Director, Chemmannur Academy and Systems, had Linda Rakhesh, Managing Director, RCM Wellness; Jyoti Aswani, Managing Partner (Textile and Lifetsyle), Aswani Lachmandas Group; Mini Sajan, CEO, SAJ Hotels and Resorts; and Shiney Sebastian, CEO, Affluenz Financial Services as the panellists. All being better halves in their respective boardrooms, the panellists shared their experiences on how they are the first among equals when it comes to taking professional decisions, how they agree to disagree, how they are a different person at home and work, how they handle employment dynamics and how as a woman they feel appreciated.

Mini Sajan explained how she functions as the ‘chief commandant’ in her professional sphere where she runs a hospitality business, venturing into it post marriage.

Shiney Sebastian detailed how she and her spouse identify each other’s strengths and try to bring out the best in each other.

Jyoti Aswani spoke about her entry into the family run business after being in the role of a home-maker for 20 years. “You have to really work hard to reach the pinnacle of success. It is not an easy task. But appreciation and rewards were always there for me,” she said.

NITTY-GRITTY OF FUNDING WOMEN’S ENTERPRISES

Of the many interesting sessions held as part of the Women Business Summit, a generous amount of food for thought was evoked during the last session titled ‘Funding Women-led Businesses’.

Moderated by Shana Susan Ninan, Marketing Communications Manager, Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty, the session saw a fruitful discussion involving a panel comprising Shalini Warrier, Chief Operating Officer, The Federal Bank Limited; Dr. M Beena IAS, MD, KSIDC; Ruby Peethambaran, Co-founder, Fourth Ambit Technologies; Pushpy Muricken, Cost Accountant, PB Muricken & Associates and Suma Ajith, Co-founder and Director of Operations, I Love 9 Months Fitness Solutions.

Shalini Warrier, who delivered the keynote address, started off by stating that it is fear that deters many from starting a business and that it takes a lot of grit and conviction to overcome this fear. “It is sometimes a lot more difficult for women to overcome limitations while starting a business, given the traditional structure of Indian society and women being the binding force of the family.’’ She added women being able to better understand and mange finances give them an edge over male counterpart and said: “It comes naturally to us.”

In the panel discussion that followed, Dr. Beena spoke about how failures make entrepreneurs better positioned and equipped. “What I have been trying to tell young startups is to overcome fear of failure. KSIDC has a lot of success stories which we feel should be seen as a positive message to all upcoming startups.”

Speaking about money management, Pushpy Muricken said, “Knowing money and handling money are the worst fears for both men and women. The reality is that unless you get to know how the money flows there is no point in discussing about business projects.”

According to Suma Ajith, the objective of I Love 9 Months is to redefine the functioning of maternity wellness sector in an inclusive way. “We wanted women from all sections of society to get access to maternity wellness,” she said. Suma has come out with the app in a bid to break the economic and demographic barriers.

POWER OF CROWDFUNDING IS HUGE: SATISH KATARIA

In conservation with Rajesh Nair, Satish Kataria, Founder & MD, Catapooolt Crowdfunding and Investment Head, Viridian Angel Fund, explained the novelty and advantages of crowdfunding for entrepreneurs. Satish, also a guru in the investment domain and a mentor, spoke about the various models of crowdfunding which the relatively new entrepreneur rookies in India and abroad prefer. For the last 10 years he has been working closely with the invesments market in the country.

In 2010, he started his own venture and according to him, the entrepreneurial journey has been quite exciting.

Could you explain crowdfunding?

We know venture capital investment, bank loans etc. Crowdfunding is a new medium which emerged about five years ago. This medium means how a person as an ideator or startup can involve people to fund him or her. It originates from questions such as ‘Why should power of funding be placed only in a few hands?’, ‘Why can’t it be democratised?’ and ‘Why can’t everyone be part of the funding process?’ Five lakh farmers of Gujarat pooling Rs. 2 each to fund the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation is an ideal example of crowdfunding. Power of crowdfunding is huge. Today, as we speak, the quantum of crowdfunding has already surpassed venture capital funding which is about $60 billion. It is projected that crowdfunding would cross $100 billion in next two years.
It does not require any intermediaries like bank, and more importantly, the money is not focussed in a few hands. There are different models of crowdfunding – donation-based crowdfunding, reward-based crowdfunding, peer-to-peer lending process to help you grow your business and equity crowdfunding in which the lender also accumulates a few shares in your business. To put it in perspective, in India equity crowdfunding has not yet been allowed by Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). However, the regulator is actively considering it.

Debt crowdfunding is already happening in India. About two years ago, Reserve Bank of India allowed peer-to-peer lending. There already exists many platforms which facilitate peer-to-peer lending in the form of debts. Another medium is the reward-based crowdfunding and it is outside the purview of any regulator.

You head Catapooolt which is reward-based funding platform? How could a person work out his or her fund requirements through your platform?

It is very simple. One can just go on to our website (www.catapooolt.com) and submit the ideas there.Just like any other fund, we look out for value in the idea and evaluate the answers to the questions such as ‘What kind of funding the applicant is seeking?’ and ‘What is the breakup of the funding?’ If the committee of prospective contributors get excited about the idea, we allow you to take it forward through the platform. We also extend support and resources to help you reach out to your audience. Through crowdfunding any entrepreneur can expect to raise anywhere between Rs. 3 lakh to Rs. 10 lakh. Even though they are small amounts, a lot of people need only this much of money to transform their ideas into prototypes. The maximum that we have raised so far for a single project is Rs. 28 lakh and the minimum is Rs. 50,000.

You started off as marketer and PR person. How did you end up in finance and investments?

I first began developing interest in this when I was associated with a media fund in 2010. I realised that there are thousands of people in the Silicon Valley who fund startups. But there was hardly anyone like that in India. I realised that there needs to be more people who can, in turn, engage and bring more people into the ecosystem because if that does not happen entrepreneurial growth will slow down. There are limitations to what formal funding mechanisms can do. Those realisations helped me understand the potential of crowdfunding as a tool of fund raising.

Please tell us about Viridian Angel Fund which is essentially a Venture Capital Fund?

If you are able to do a successful crowdfunding it is somewhat easier to sell your idea to a venture capitalist who comes in stages ahead. Hence, crowdfunding becomes a very easy tool that helps you approach investors. Crowdfunding just does not give you money, but is a very critical validation of an entrepreneur’s idea.
I am leading Viridian which is an early stage fund and we will be looking out for investing in early stage ideas. Our sweet spot in prospective investment will be anywhere between Rs. 1.5 crore to Rs. 2 crore.

How have you raised the fund? And what are the sectors you are focusing on to invest?

A part of it is sponsored money and another part will come from Limited Partners (LP) which would be High Net Worth Individuals. However, we will not be focussing on any particular sector.

How do you see Kerala as a potential investment space?

I have been tracking a lot of government initiatives in Kerala and other south Indian cities. I think there are a number of hungry entrepreneurs and talent out here who really want to innovate. Also, I will not get that many actual innovations from North and West regions of the country. There are a lot of people here who are working on some very interesting product-based ideas that can take a leap not just in India but in international markets as well. I am glad that the government here is very aggressive. I am sure that many South Indian cities will soon come up as entrepreneurial hubs.

What are the two things which you would look for in a venture approaching you for investment?

Firstly, the team. I would evaluate how strong the team is and secondly, how sustainable the business is. I would also analyse the projected growth rate of the venture.

What are you favourite sectors?

I am interested in upcoming technologies – IoT and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Besides, I am very much interested in consumer technology. I believe there is a lot of scope in areas like FMCG and product innovation happening in that space.

What is your advice to a young entrepreneur?

Irrespective of you being a woman or a man what matters is persistence, dedication and commitment. There will be lot of people who will tell you what not to do, but you have to understand what is it that you want to do at the end of the day. The idea is to keep going because entrepreneurial journey is a very lonely journey.